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How prison has shaped one artist’s view on social distancing

Millions of Americans across the country are now staying inside due to the pandemic. That includes artist Fulton Leroy Washington, who became known as “Mr. Wash" while serving 21 years in prison for a non-violent drug offense. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker spoke with Washington about why his time being incarcerated allows him to see social distancing differently than many Americans.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's estimated that at least 229 million americans are now being asked to stay home. One of them – Fulton Leroy Washington — is a former prison inmate turned celebrated artist. He goes professionally by the name "Mr. Wash," he recently spoke with NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker about what "sheltering in" means to someone who has already spent over two decades doing it.

  • Christopher Booker:

    We were planning on telling you the story of Mr. wash and his extraordinary paintings under different circumstances. Sentenced to serve life on a non-violent drug conviction — a crime he says he didn't commit — Mr. Wash was one of hundreds of thousands of black men sent away during America's War on Drugs. It's a 1990's three-strikes-you're-out story. One that's uniquely American. But this Mr. Wash story isn't about his sentencing, it's about what he did during his 21 years in prison.

  • Mr Wash:

    I spent my time doing exactly what I'm doing right now, painting,

  • Christopher Booker:

    Mr. Wash painted a lot and he painted very, very well.

    So well, that when he applied for clemency and somehow it was granted, he wondered if his art work had anything to do with it, but that is a story for another time.

  • Mr. Wash:

    Lemme close this window. There's light coming in making this glare.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Like so many Americans, Mr. Wash is now stuck at home, living under California's "shelter in place" order.

    Fulton Leroy Washington // Mr. Wash: This kind of reminds me of doing the time of being incarcerated, they call a lockdown. We go on lockdown. When you're on lockdown in prison, you can't shut your ears off. Here I hear things, cars going by, the sounds of the sirens, firetrucks. And it makes you wonder, is somebody hurt, somebody injured? Is that a fire truck? Is that an ambulance? Is that a police? In prison, you hear the guards running. And you wonder if it's a fight or a stabbing. You're just using your imagination to figure out what's really going on.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you think your time in prison, strangely enough, gave you an ability to make it through this period in ways that, say, I'm not used to?

  • Mr. Wash:

    Yes, I do. I do. I think my time in prison because I never waste time. See, we all get X amount of time to live, to enjoy life. And what you do with it is your own. In prison, I didn't waste time. So I find myself back in a very familiar situation. I'm learning how to use a computer. This is my first time ever doing something like what we're doing now. This is brand new, this whole Zoom thing. So I'm learning new technology. I'm still working on my case to prove my innocence. And I'm still painting, creating what's going on in the world today.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do you have friends and family that have not been incarcerated that are calling you for advice, saying Mr. Wash– what? What should I be doing? How should I be getting through this?

  • Mr. Wash:

    Yeah I do. I do. I do get those calls. People call me be like "Man, man, what are you doing?" I say you have to have a routine. And the routine need to use the energy that you have.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Mr. Wash gave us a video demonstration of what he was talking about.

  • Mr. Wash:

    Let's get moving, let's do a good morning workout. Basically exercise . You want to exercise and stretch your body in the morning because you're not going to get a chance to walk around and run and do all this stuff. Set the coffee water on. Get and take your shower, come back. Drink a cup of coffee, and for me, I go to the paint brush and I start to paint.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And this is what Mr. Wash has been doing for nearly 12 hours a day, a process he captures and shares on his instagram account. This piece is for an upcoming exhibit of L.A. artists to be held at the Huntington and Hammer museums in July.

  • Mr. Wash:

    We have a little ways to go with this. I have about three weeks to finish this piece.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And who are the two faces that we see?

  • Mr. Wash:

    Oh, this is Mundane and his grandson. He's the owner of Beas markets out of Kansas City. He was an ex-inmate that was serving, I believe, a life sentence at the time I was.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is this changing your creative approach to your painting? Are you having all kinds of new ideas come to you?

  • Mr. Wash:

    I'm having so many ideas, Chris, that come to me that I would love to paint. This is history. And it should be recorded no different than everything that happened back with Picasso and Rembrandt and all of them, they captured their history moments. I need to be one of the artists that capture that moment.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And when social distancing is a thing of the past, we will be there with Mr. Wash to share with you what he came up with.

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